The sorry outcome when CPS gave its bus companies millions in pandemic relief funds

The companies made out like bandits, pocketing the money meant to keep them from laying off drivers. We have to wonder how much this may have led to the crippling driver shortages this year.

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A crippling shortage of school bus drivers has been one of the biggest problems in CPS this school year, affecting thousands of students, many of them with special needs.

Now, based on findings from an investigation by CPS Inspector General Will Fletcher, we’re wondering if the shortages could have been avoided with more oversight by CPS over bus companies that were given federal pandemic relief funds not long after schools shut down in 2020.

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The bus companies, it goes without saying, should have lived up to their obligation to properly use the funds they were given to prevent driver layoffs. That’s what CPS, when it handed out nearly $30 million to the bus companies, thought would happen, as the Sun-Times’ Nader Issa and Lauren FitzPatrick reported last week in a story on the IG’s findings.

Instead, most of the 14 bus companies that received a total of $28.5 million made out like bandits. They pocketed the money while laying off hundreds of drivers.

Fraud involving pandemic relief funds is not uncommon. In December, the U.S. Secret Service, which investigates financial fraud, reported that nearly $100 billion in COVID relief funds has been stolen. The problem is so severe the agency appointed a new national pandemic fraud recovery coordinator to oversee its investigations into the fraud cases.

Some $2.3 billion of those stolen funds has been recovered. If there’s any way CPS can recover even a portion of the $28.5 million bus companies pocketed, the district should go for it.

CPS expected the companies would keep paying their drivers so they would be ready to go back to work when schools reopened. As one CPS top manager told the inspector general’s investigators, “We assumed the businesses would do right by their people if the district did right by the companies.”

CPS never got a firm guarantee from the companies they would do the right thing, even though state education officials had suggested amending contracts to secure such guarantees. Ten of the 14 bus vendors laid off more than 600 bus drivers for varying amounts of time during the spring 2020 school closures, the investigation found.

The IG’s office didn’t name any of the companies involved, so it isn’t clear if any of the vendors that got the money were involved in this year’s shortages.

The age-old moral of this story: Get it in writing.

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